The Cinemagic drive-in theatre in April, 2010 (sorta)
BBC Comes to Alabama
To Meet Atticus Finch.
By Ron Fritze from Athens, Alabama
Posted May 8, 2010
I have to confess, I am not really an avid newspaper reader. But on Sunday, 25 April, I saw a story in the News Courier of Athens, Alabama, telling that the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) would be shooting a documentary at our local drive-in movie theater (thatís theatre to the Brits reading this essay). The deal was that the Cinemagic would be screening the movie To Kill a Mockingbird for free on Tuesday night, April 27. It was a bit unclear whether the documentary was concerned with American drive-in movie theaters or To Kill a Mockingbird.
Intrigued by Mysterious Possibility
On the Monday before the screening, I ran into Ryan Green, a former student of mine on the Athens State campus. Ryanís an assistant manager at the Cinemagic and he did not know much more than the newspaper story, but he had the impression that the documentary was about drive-ins.
Again, I must confess that the idea of a BBC documentary intrigued me. I am enough of a Hoosier ham to want to get into the documentary. My wife Twylia agrees with the ham part, although she would call it being a Yankee jerk. Anyway, we decided to check it out Tuesday night. Earlier that day, I shared the news with my friend and colleague Al Elmore, a professor of English. He was also intrigued, particularly by the possibility of getting into a BBC documentary. He said he would be going and I said I would be looking for him at Cinemagic.
That night Twylia and I made it to the drive-in by 7. We lucked out and got to park right next to Al. But Twylia was horrified to discover that the movie would not start before 8:15. Clearly, sheíd forgotten about
the fatal combination of bright sunlight and drive-in movies. Anyway, she decided to bail and called her uncle to come pick her up and take her back to our house. So Al and I were on our own for the upcoming cinematic adventure.
Al and I stood around chatting and kept our eyes open for the arrival of the BBC crew. They showed up about 8 in a pick-up truck. These guys were earnestly interested in getting a real slice of Americana — and doing it the American way. I was wondering whether it might not be a good idea to direct them to the nearest Sonic so they could develop more of the drive-in theme. Me, Iím a Route 44 strawberry slush and chili burger guy, although I have not touched either for about nine months since I am trying to lose some weight. Also, itís been a cold winter — and that doesn't mix with a slush.
Glancing at the concessions, Al mentioned that the price of popcorn was rather high. I said, no problem. I had popped a big bag of popcorn to bring to the drive-in (remember, I am a Hoosier) and offered to share it with Al. There were a couple of beers in my cooler, but Al doesnít drink, so they were all mine. Mind you, this was a bit of a chilly night, so hot coffee, tea, or chocolate would actually have been better.
Alís and my hanging out finally paid off. The BBC crew came over and talked with us. It turns out the documentary was basically about To Kill a Mockingbird. The guy doing the interviews had read the book but had never seen the movie. The stick was for him to see the film for the first time in an American drive-in theater in Alabama. Yes, Athens is in Alabama, but itís a far piece north of Monroeville, location for the film shoot and model for the novelís fictional setting of Maycomb, Alabama. The interviewer worried that the movie would not live up to the book, but we reassured him that it would.
A Winner in Many Ways.
To Kill a Mockingbird appeared in cinemas in 1962 and was shot in black and white. The black and white imagery is appropriate to the mood of the film, particularly since much of the story takes place at night. This is not a movie to colorize.
The film stars Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. Mr. Peck earned the best actor Oscar for his work. The script won an Oscar for best screenplay — and I agree. It is a very effective adaptation of the novel. Films based on novels frequently disappoint, but To Kill a Mockingbird is not one of them. And, if you havenít read the novel, I highly recommend it, especially if youíre interested in fully rounded characters. For example, the African-American maid, Calpurnia, is developed much more in the book and has a much closer relationship with the children, Jem and Scout, than the film indicates.
The night of the movie, I wore a t-shirt proclaiming my allegiance to Athens State University, but it was so cold that I was zipped up in a hoodie and it couldnít be seen. I also wore a baseball cap from Cambridge University, which caught the eye of the documentary film crew. We had some fun with them and then got into my car to watch the movie and eat some popcorn.
It was a great experience to see To Kill a Mockingbird in such a classic Americana setting. Driving in, I was a little worried about falling asleep, as I had stayed up much too late the night before writing a book review. But the chill in the night air helped keep me awake. And the drama of To Kill a Mockingbird helped even more.
A Sobering Look at Racism
In case you are not familiar with the story, To Kill a Mockingbird is a coming-of-age story written by Harper Lee, who grew up in Monroeville, Alabama. The novel was published in 1960 and has never been out of print. The narrator, a little girl named Jean Louise Finch, is the daughter of Atticus Finch, a small town lawyer. Jean Louise is nicknamed Scout by her family. The focus of the narrative is the trial of an African-American man named Tom Robinson, who is accused of raping a white woman. Atticus Finch is assigned to be Robinsonís lawyer.
It is quite clear that Tom Robinson is innocent, a truth that children can see more easily than the adults around them. Tom has a withered arm, and the idea that he could have raped the woman is preposterous. But in 1930s Alabama, an African-American male accused of a crime like raping a white woman was guilty until proven innocent — and even than he was still guilty. The children get a big and sobering look at hatred and the ugly irrationality of racism.
Bebe Shaw, another friend and professor of English, told me that Harper Lee was inspired to write To Kill a Mockingbird by the grossly unfair trials of the Scottsboro Boys, an injustice that took place during the 1930s when she was a little girl of Scoutís age. Lee herself mentioned being inspired by the murder of Emmett Till in 1955. The novel is also autobiographical, and in many aspects Harper Lee is Scout. The character of Dill Harris is based on Truman Capote, who was a childhood friend of Leeís.
In case you are wondering why the BBC would be interested in To Kill a Mockingbird, the novel is widely read in British schools. For many British, the novel is the primary factor in putting Alabama on their mental map — with Helen Keller running a close second in establishing a stereotypical identity for ďthe Heart of Dixie.Ē Remember, no Western films are set in Alabama. Alas, Alabama is not Texas. But, perhaps, not alas.
Meanwhile, back at the drive-in, Al and I thoroughly enjoyed the film. It is a good one to watch in a theater setting, where oneís attention is free of domestic distractions and more sharply attuned to the big image on the silver screen. It was my first time to watch To Kill a Mockingbird in a theater rather than at home on the television.
Will Al and I make the documentary, or will our wry snippets of ďlocal colorĒ end up on the cutting room floor? We wonít know until the documentary screens in June. We signed waivers for our appearance, which is how I discovered it was a BBC Wales production. So I am going to e-mail my friends Lorna and Peter in Bristol and their daughter, my god-daughter Victoria, to be on the lookout for the documentary. Maybe Victoria can keep Al and me off the cutting room floor. Sheís getting to be quite a big wheel in the Welsh regional government. So, until then, Al and I say, two thumbs up! for To Kill a Mockingbird.
Click on the black panther to read about Ron Fritze's latest book,
Invented Knowledge: False History, Fake Science, and Pseudo-religions.